Sunday, August 7

Survivor of the last tragedy of a patera trying to reach the Canary Islands: “They were dying little by little”

“They died little by little. First the children and then the women.” One of the seven survivors of the inflatable boat that left the Sahara with 54 people and drifted for 13 days before ending up on a beach in Mauritania recounts the latest tragedy on the migration route to the Canary Islands, the most dangerous in Africa.

From a migrant detention center in Mauritania, Moussa (not his real name) recalled his “hell” of almost two weeks aboard a semi-rigid boat on the phone this Tuesday, those that are swallowed by the waves as soon as the sea rises.

His case has been an exception, Helena Maleno, spokesperson for the NGO Caminando Fronteras, Moussa’s interlocutor, tells Efe that she has seen dozens of zodiacs disappear shortly after leaving.

Helena is also a witness to how this type of boat is increasing on the Canarian route, which further aggravates its danger. “1,000 kilometers. It is the first time that we have seen a zodiac hold so much,” he says.

But the endurance of Moussa’s boat was not accompanied by that of his crew, who died of thirst and hunger as the days passed, despite the help of some Moroccan fishermen with whom they passed. They were given, recalls this Guinean, two or three bottles of water for 54 people. It was not enough.

Two brothers survive together

From a police post in Nouadhibou, in Mauritania, an exhausted Moussa uses a mobile phone borrowed from a local neighbor to speak with Helena, who comes to give them food every day. There he is with three other traveling companions: two Malian brothers and a Senegalese. The other three survivors recover in hospital.

His nightmare began on August 3, when those 54 people, mostly from Guinea Conakry, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali, got on a fragile boat near El Alaiún (Western Sahara), built to house many fewer and with the intention to travel about 125 kilometers to the island of Fuerteventura.

A day and a half after leaving, they ran out of gas. They were not far from the coast and they were passing fishermen, but none, Helena believes, called the authorities to warn of the boat adrift.

The pneumatics then continued its route to the south carried by the sea and the lack of water and food began to wreak havoc. Its crew members were dying “little by little”, explains Moussa. First the children (there were three) and then the women. Of the ten who traveled in the zodiac, only one has survived, now in a hospital in Nouadhibou.

“People fell asleep and died, others threw themselves into the sea”, Moussa relives, and recalls how finally, thirteen days later, the caprice of the currents took the boat to a Mauritanian beach. Upon reaching the coast, three other people died.

Moussa’s boat could have had an even worse outcome. The sea could have carried them inland, where 4,500 kilometers of the Atlantic Ocean awaited them to the west. In fact, this year there are already two boats that arrive half destroyed in Trinidad and Tobago with corpses on board. Most are swallowed up by the sea.

Now, Moussa is afraid that they will deport him and leave him in the middle of the desert on the border with Mali, as the Mauritanian authorities usually do when they have evidence of migrants of that nationality.

“Promise me that they are not going to take me to the desert,” he implores on the telephone he loaned to Helena, who demands a more benevolent treatment for these castaways from Mauritania. “We ask the Mauritanian authorities not to subject them to an expulsion procedure, especially these victims of tragedies. They are devastated.”

From Moussa’s story, Helena draws another reflection. He believes that none of those fishermen who assisted the emigrants notified the Moroccan authorities. They are, he says, afraid to do it. “I ask you to report. Tragedies can be avoided. You don’t have to be afraid, the important thing is to save lives.”

Today, Helena does not stop receiving calls from relatives of the women who were in the zodiac. They expected to hear from them on August 4 after a planned 24-hour crossing to the Canary Islands, but the news never came.

The worst, yet to come

If 2020 was a historic year in terms of the upturn in the arrival of emigrants to the Canary Islands, 2021 is doubling its figures. As of August 1, there were already 7,531 people, compared to 3,185 the previous year.

And the worst is yet to come. From the end of September, when the Atlantic calms down a bit and the Alísean winds accompany, the boats multiply.

Helena is particularly concerned about two things: the emigration of Moroccans, which last year increased exponentially, and zodiac such as Moussa’s.

“We have seen an increase in pneumatics in the Atlantic, which did not exist before,” he warns. Moussa has been able to see it on his skin and with what he has experienced, he no longer wants to try it again. “I just want to go back to Guinea. I want to see my wife and children.”